As a fellow adoptee, I was excited to connect with author, filmmaker, and adoptee advocate Angela Tucker, author of You Should be Grateful: Stories of Race, Identify, and Transracial Adoption (Beacon Press, 2023). Tucker, a Black woman born in Tennessee, spent thirteen months in foster care before a white couple in Bellingham, Washington, adopted her.
When Tucker read her own adoption case report as an adult, she was dismayed to see how the social worker had portrayed her. The 1986 report stated Tucker would need “lifetime treatment and special care” due to a physician’s diagnosis of spastic quadriplegia, a form of cerebral palsy. Tucker felt the report reduced her to a list of limitations rather than describing her as a complete person. The doctor’s diagnosis was wrong: Tucker did not have cerebral palsy. She went on to thrive in high school, playing varsity basketball and competing in track, cross-country, and other sports.
After earning a psychology degree in 2008, Tucker worked as a caseworker at a private adoption agency in Seattle. She kept a copy of her childhood case report on her desk as a reminder to encourage potential adoptive parents to view children and birth mothers as complex individuals whose needs should also be considered.
In her early twenties, Tucker embarked on a search for her biological parents. At 26, she met her father, then her mother. She chronicled her poignant journey in the documentary Closure, which enjoyed a successful run at film festivals and on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.
Tucker is a sought-after speaker at adoption conferences, yet she often finds herself walking a fine line. She aims to encourage prospective adoptive parents to adopt, while also admonishing them to consider older, Black, and Brown children in foster care. These groups are adopted at much lower rates than newborn white children. As an advocate, Tucker works to expand adoption opportunities for all children in need of a permanent home.
Over the years, Tucker has served as a consultant on movies and television shows like NBC’s This Is Us, lending her expertise to adoption and transracial adoption storylines. She hosts her own podcast, The Adoptee Next Door, which features adoptee stories. Tucker has appeared as a guest on podcasts, CNN, talk shows, and has written about transracial adoption for local and national outlets.
In 2021, Tucker founded the nonprofit Adoptee Mentoring Society, where she and others mentor adopted youth through initiatives like the Adoptee Lounge, a regular monthly virtual gathering.
Tucker and I connected via email to discuss her book and our shared experiences as adoptees who have grappled with identity and belonging.
The Rumpus: Tell us how this book came about?
Angela Tucker: As a transracial adoptee, I have consistently faced moments of being misunderstood. Writing this book after my documentary came out was a great way to add a layer to the standard understanding of what people think it means to be adopted.
In early 2020, I received an email from Rachel Harding, a University of Colorado professor, after she listened to my podcast. She wrote about how my experiences and insights opened new perspectives on race, power, and class. She expressed that my lived experiences gave me unique viewpoints on these societal issues. Her note impacted me deeply. Reading Dr. Harding’s words held a whole different meaning and helped me to view writing this book as a way to bring a new angle to issues like borders, citizenship, and belonging. It was exciting to realize I could contribute to the conversation.
People have referred to me as a “bridge builder,” but I think they’re implying I’m a Black woman who moves comfortably in white spaces. However, in this book, I thought I could use my code-switching abilities for good. I was thrilled to be connected with Helene Atwan at Beacon Press by my agent, Jane Dystel. Being an adoptive mom herself, Helene was excited about the idea of publishing a “big think” book from the adoptee perspective.
Also, friends in academia would often share relevant research articles with me, but so much great work was stuck behind paywalls and inaccessible to the adoptee families I work with. Having a documentary filmmaker husband, I’ve learned the power of storytelling. I decided to pair personal stories from my own childhood with research to make this information more engaging, digestible, and accessible to everyone.
Rumpus: What was the biggest challenge writing this book?
Tucker: The book, and my work in general, confronts deeply ingrained systems and norms around adoption. It’s such an emotionally charged topic that people often feel personally attacked when asked to think differently, even if there’s no real threat. I would get pushback, questions like “Aren’t you glad you weren’t aborted or would you rather have languished in foster care?” Questions about how my adoptive parents might feel about my critiques of the adoption system aren’t helpful.
Rumpus: Given your busy schedule, how did you find time to write?
Tucker: I wrote a hefty portion of this book during the pandemic. Although I was busy producing a podcast and conducting virtual mentorship sessions with adoptees, I still had plenty of time to write. As the pandemic lifted, I prioritized taking silent writing retreats to get the deep work done. It was an honor to stay at the famed Hedgebrook cottages for a couple of weeks. Their motto is radical hospitality, and that is indeed what they provided. I also would stay in quiet and secluded Airbnb’s with a couple of my friends, who were also working on big projects. We’d write all day and then be in community together over a home-cooked meal in the evening.
Rumpus: What are your thoughts on the adoptee books out there, and how did you want your book to be different?
Tucker: It’s so exciting to be part of this wave of adoptee literature alongside authors like Shannon Gibney, Nicole Chung, Susan Ito, and the various adoptee anthologies out there. What an empowering time for adoptee voices!
Many adoptee memoirs focus on their personal story, but for me, it felt important to contextualize adoption within the larger story of American history and child-welfare systemic practices. This is a central aspect of my premise. By looking at the multitude of factors that came into play for my adoption to take place, it offers space for me to articulate why I’m not grateful to have been adopted but am thankful to have grown up in a wonderful home. To understand this sentence, one needs to see the full picture. I desired to offer aspects of my story to stimulate new dialogue, promulgate diverse perspectives, original ideas, rigorous analysis, and debate. By contextualizing my experience, I hoped to offer new dimensions to the conversation around adoption.
Rumpus: Gratitude. We adoptees are often told by society, strangers, and for some of us, even our adoptive parents, we should be grateful.
Tucker: I am very sad I was separated from my biological family and my roots. It’s frustrating that I grew up without my biological siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. However, I am grateful to have been adopted into a loving family. I now have a more expansive and inclusive definition of family.
Rumpus: You wrote that people often say you’re lucky a stable family adopted you. Why are these kinds of comments offensive or wrong?
Tucker: I can’t help but wonder how my birth mother would process these types of statements. She’d likely feel hurt and saddened, internalizing the assumption that whoever she is, she must be less than what my adoptive parents are. Strangers who don’t know either my adoptive or birth parents made these insensitive statements. It infuriates me when people tell a transracial adoptee they’re so “lucky” to be adopted. Essentially, this is coded language that subtly implies the child was saved from what could have been a terrible life. It forces binary thinking, suggesting an adoptee’s loyalty must be to their adoptive family or biological roots, rather than embracing both. My birth mother does not deserve these hurtful assumptions. I hope in time, through open and thoughtful discussion, we can move beyond such ignorant statements and show greater understanding and compassion.
Rumpus: What was the hardest part of growing up as an adoptee?
Tucker: Not having access to information that is rightfully mine has always been an enormous struggle. For example, having to say or write “I’m adopted” at the top of every medical form is a frustrating reminder of my status of being different. It was also hard having to explain to everyone why I had to be adopted. People would often ask, “What was wrong with your birth parents?”
Rumpus: Why do you think adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide than non-adoptees?
Tucker: The reasons vary, but I believe ambiguous loss and disenfranchised grief are major factors in adoptees’ mental health struggles. Ambiguous loss, a term coined by therapist and researcher Pauline Boss, has two forms: when someone is physically present yet psychologically absent, and when someone is physically absent but psychologically present. As an adoptee, I experienced the latter, though both are common. Without my birth mother’s presence, this loss left me with a profound sense of grief.
And without a deep understanding of this loss, an adoptee can feel a sense of disenfranchised grief. Society doesn’t understand how to acknowledge and validate this type of grief. Statements about how “lucky” we are to be adopted can feel dismissive and are, frankly, tough to hear.
Some adoptees would prefer people to recognize the inherent loss in any adoption. We need space to grieve the complex emotions tied to the loss of our birth parents. I hope that through open discussion, we can bring more nuance and sensitivity to how we perceive adoptees. This can lead to better support for adoptees.
Rumpus: Identity is a major theme in your memoir. As a transracial adoptee, it’s complicated. How has it changed?
Tucker: My identity as a Black woman deepened after I found and met my biological family. I write about how I did feel a sense of imposter syndrome as I grew up, but this has dissipated since getting connected to my roots.
Rumpus: You cite the 1972 paper from the National Association of Black Social Workers that called transracial adoption “racial genocide.” You’ve said if it’s a choice between a Black child being adopted by white parents or remaining in foster care, the first is preferable.
Tucker: Oh goodness, of course, the ideal is for all children to be in healthy, permanent families. However, I don’t believe our current system serves children of color well. Too many Black and Brown children are removed from their homes at disproportionately high rates. We need to critically examine and address the biases and social and economic conditions behind these elevated rates, as advocates like Jessica Pryce powerfully argue.
There are thousands of prospective parents on waiting lists for newborn children. It’s important to address the reasons behind this. We must also confront why so many older children of color lack permanent homes. Outside of the hope that we can work harder to keep families together, I’d love to see more same-race adoptions. Black and Brown parents adopting Black and Brown children maintain cultural ties. I’m heartened to see some white parents adopting transracially more conscientiously. More white parents are understanding the importance of raising their child in a racially diverse area and outsourcing support to help foster their child’s racial identity and socialization.
Rumpus: Some adoptees feel that connecting with their biological parents will make them whole. Do you feel whole?
Tucker: My adoption is undoubtedly a huge part of my identity. Finding my birth parents helped me to make sense of my story. So my wholeness comes from both sets of parents. My adoptive parents have embraced my birth family in full—not as tokens or simply as extensions of me—but as genuine human beings with a plethora of life experiences and a range of emotions. This has helped me feel most whole. Having my biological, foster, and adoptive families in my life is dynamic, forgiving, and lovely.
Rumpus: You’ve described a “sondersphere,” an ideal space where adoptees, biological, and adoptive family members can all co-exist. Although this may exist for some, it isn’t the reality for many adoptees. Sadly, secrecy, lies, and betrayal are part of many adoptee stories. How do you hope your book will encourage those in the adoption triad (adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents) to create a more open inclusive space where everyone can coexist?
Tucker: The sondersphere is my belief that it’s never harmful for adoptees to have too many people who love them. I hope my book can help adoptive parents understand that their fears and concerns about openness cannot outweigh the benefits for adoptees and the opportunity it provides for us to make sense of ourselves and our identity. Thankfully, our society finally acknowledges that babies aren’t “blank slates.” They may have memories and experiences with their families of origin; however, it can still be tricky to conceptualize openness if the child experienced neglect or abuse. I know there is still a lot of concern from adoptive parents about the “right” age to bring up adoption. I hope my book will provide a blueprint for adoptive families to embrace this inclusivity.
Rumpus: Did you get closure after meeting your biological parents, and do you think it’s possible for adoptees to gain closure?
Tucker: I did not get closure. I think it may not be possible because we’re human beings. After meeting my birth mother, Deborah, I realized the trauma she went through. She had few resources. Society loves to save a child, but we shouldn’t forget the parents—the mother who carried this baby and is often left on her own. She just gave birth, is producing milk, and she may not have a doctor or the information on how to alleviate that pressure and pain. I want to walk people step-by-step to produce some sort of empathy for the biological mother. By doing so, everyone will benefit.
Author photograph by Shadia K. David